God Defines Marriage
Jesus uses an example of divorce and remarriage in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:31-32) to depict an aspect of true Kingdom righteousness, but it's such an important topic that we need to pause in order to understand our Lord's view of what marriage is.
Even though the main point of Matthew 5:31-32 is not to teach us concerning God’s view of divorce and remarriage, we cannot help but take the opportunity to tackle this important topic.
Marriage is not man’s invention. Marriage is not subject to man’s definition. Marriage is not a merely modern thing, either. It goes all the way back to the very beginning when God created man on the earth.
So we’re going to begin our time looking into what Jesus teaches about divorce and remarriage by first having a basic understanding of what marriage is in the first place. And to do this, we need look no further than the first two chapters of the Bible.
“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Now, for some observations.
What we read here is that God created mankind uniquely -- separate from all other things that he made.
And he made them in his image -- which is to say that he made mankind such that we would resemble God both in character and in function.
And God made mankind with what we should refer to as sexual polarity -- this means that male-ness and female-ness is inherent to what it means to be made in God’s image. Male and female might exist in the greater animal kingdom, but not in the same way that it exists in humankind -- we are male and female by the decree and design of our maker in the same way that we are alive and have human dignity by the decree and design of our maker.
If you know your US history, you might be very familiar with the second paragraph of the US Declaration of Independence, in which it is written: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” The founders had this correct -- that government’s right to govern was granted by people who possessed an inherent dignity by their Creator. But we could just as rightly insert into that statement that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights and with a certain unalterable sex.” To be made in God’s image is to have human dignity, human worth, human privilege, human responsibility, and human sexuality. Being male or female is part and parcel to your very identity as a human being.
And as long as you haven’t been living under a rock, you can understand how terribly perverse our culture has become. We are the culture which celebrates being like the nations of Psalm 2, who “take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” We are the society which can be well described with the words of Isaiah 29:15-16 -- “Ah, you who hide deep from the LORD your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?”
It is our civilization that shakes our fists at our Maker and that treats the potter like the clay.
How sad that the world has rebelled against God. This is an incredibly sad reality because we read in Genesis 1:28 that God Blessed mankind uniquely. He blessed us with the privilege of multiplying and having dominion on the earth.
But that’s not all.
Because if we move to Genesis 2 -- where we find a fuller depiction of God’s blessed creation of humankind -- here we find the special means by which some of the things about our humanity from Genesis 1 work together.
“Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”
Moses records the creation account a second time in chapter 2, and this time he adds some beautiful detail concerning the creation of man and woman: He says that the man without the woman is not good. It is clear that man apart from woman was incapable of accomplishing that which God blessed him to do -- to fill the earth and to subdue it. Both male and female are necessary. We also observe that human sexuality was created in a manner very much distinct from all other organisms. It was created in a manner that was special and purposeful and elegant. And Adam’s poetic response to seeing the woman indicates that the two of them together define what kinship is. They are flesh and bone of each other... Even their titles indicate this to be true -- they are ish (Hebrew for man) and ish-ah (Hebrew for woman).
And then we come to verse 24.
There is still something lacking which is necessary for all of this to work. In order for God’s perfect creation to function as it should -- with mankind exercising dominion as male and female -- for it to work there had to be marriage.
I hope you can see that marriage is no afterthought. It is not a human construct for convenience. It is not a societal option. It is absolutely necessary, or else human civilization doesn’t work.
Up to this point in the book of Genesis, Moses is relating a story. But now in verse 24 he inserts an editorial comment. He stops relating what happened in the Garden in order to make a point.
After chronicling what God did to create male and female humans, he says:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
In other words, because of the way in which God created mankind in his image with sexual polarity as male and female -- because of that, marriage exists. And it not only exists, but it is also clearly defined...
If we break down verse 24 we find these 3 fundamental components to marriage… One might ask, “What are the ingredients to a marriage?” Well, they are the things outlined in Genesis 2:24.
No person can define marriage. No one can autonomously say what it is or what it isn’t. A government cannot legislate what marriage is or is not. All things derive their purpose and authority from God, thus a true marriage is defined and ordained by God alone. And in his eyes a marriage has 3 vital components:
1. The Correct Attachments
"A man shall leave his father and his mother.” (And it’s implied that the wife would do the same.) That’s pretty simple -- for a marriage to exist, there has to be a dissociation from mom and dad. Adult children are to leave home. But for a very good reason. So, first there is a detachment, but then there is an attachment.
“And hold fast to his wife.” (Again, the implication is that the wife holds fast to her husband.) The two partners are to commit to cling to each other. The word for “hold fast” in the original is most often used to refer to how an army fervently pursues its enemy in the heat of battle. And that’s the kind of intensity with which a husband and wife are to hold to one another in marriage -- this is the correct attachment for marriage. We don’t want to read too much into this directive, but what is clear is that it has to do with a sense of fidelity and relationship and provision.
So this is the first component of a true marriage -- the correct attachment.
2. The Correct Applicants
The text is explicit. A man (ish) is to cling to his wife (ish-ah)... An empirical male and an empirical female. A born male and a born female. One male and one female. An adult male and an adult female. I won’t belabor this point -- but we have to understand that regardless of if the other 2 tenants for a true marriage are met, if this second one is unmet, then the union is not a marriage. To be really clear -- the Bible here says only the union of an actual man and an actual woman can be a legitimate marriage. The state can attempt to say otherwise, and can call something other than such an arrangement a “marriage,” but it is not a marriage. God created marriage and, therefore, he alone has the right to define it.
So. A true marriage involves the correct attachments and it involves the correct applicants. And it thirdly involves the correct authorization.
3. The Correct Authorization
The text says, “And they shall become one flesh.”
Now, this phrase has unfortunately been used to mean all sorts of things that Scripture never really says that it means. It doesn’t mean that a married couple becomes some kind of conjoined twins. It doesn’t mean that a married couple becomes the same person in God’s eyes. It doesn’t mean that a wife becomes utterly and entirely absorbed into the life of her husband. So what does it mean?
Well, I don’t think it’s actually too hard to figure out. If we read what Adam said just a verse earlier, we see there that the word “flesh” is in connection to the flesh-and-bone of kinship relationship -- that the woman is the closest of kin to the man. And in several other places in Scripture we read of the fact that a person’s “flesh” denotes their close family relationship to another person.
So put this imagery together with the fact that the text is pretty clear in saying that when a man and woman leave home and cling to each other, they become one flesh -- when we consider this fact, I am left to conclude that becoming one flesh means that the married couple becomes a new family unit.
That’s what it means to become one flesh -- to become one newly-recognized family unit.
If you happen to have the NET Bible, perhaps on your tablet or phone, you’ll read this helpful footnote:
“When they unite in marriage, the man and woman bring into being a new family unit... The phrase “one flesh” occurs only here and must be interpreted in light of v. 23. There the man declares that the woman is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. To be one’s “bone and flesh” is to be related by blood to someone. For example, the phrase describes the relationship between Laban and Jacob...Abimelech and the Shechemites...David and the Israelites...David and the elders of Judah...and David and his nephew Amasa... The expression “one flesh” seems to indicate that they become, as it were, “kin,” at least legally... or metaphorically. In this first marriage in human history, the woman was literally formed from the man’s bone and flesh. Even though later marriages do not involve such a divine surgical operation, the first marriage sets the pattern for how later marriages are understood and explains why marriage supersedes the parent-child relationship.”
So. How does a man and a woman who leave moms and dads, and who cling to one another -- how do they become recognized as a new family unit? How are they recognized as one flesh?
Well, that depends. Here in the United States, as in most places in the world today, it involves a piece of paper called a marriage license. In Hebrew society during the time when Moses penned these words, it was likely through some well-understood legal means as well.
The point is that a marriage becomes a true marriage not just when a mature male and a mature female leave home and commit to cling together, but when they also are recognized by their civilization as a new familial unit -- when the union is authorized by the appropriate means.
God has so providentially raised up kings and governments such that the family of a man and a woman joined in marriage has always been the basic building block of society. It just doesn’t work any other way. So in whatever way a civilization recognizes a new family unit, if a man and a woman gain their society’s authorization for marriage after leaving home -- then they are rightly married.
So those are the three basic elements of a marriage, according to God’s creation and definition: Take care of the correct attachments (split from mom and dad and hold fast to your partner). Make sure it’s a union of the correct applicants -- of one mature biological male and one mature biological female. And make sure to receive the correct authorization. If a couple meets the first two criteria, they just need to also go through the appropriate steps in order to be recognized as a new family unit -- as a new next-of-kin relationship.
Put all three of those ingredients together, and you have a marriage -- you have the basic building block of society. So if we wanted to concisely define marriage according to how God created it, we would say that it is this:
A marriage is the creation of a new civilly-recognized family unit, composed of one created man and one created woman who have committed to hold fast to one another separate from their former families.
That’s a marriage.
And it has God’s stamp of approval because he created it to be just that. But more than just God’s approval, such a union has God’s protection.
And we see this to be the case if we move to the next time we encounter this statement of what a marriage is in Scripture. We read it being quoted by Jesus himself in Matthew 19...so let’s now turn there together.
This chapter has some similarities to our text in Matthew 5, but also some differences.
Jesus has travelled South away from Galilee and is now in the region called Perea, which was the general area in which the governor of Israel (Herod) lived.
And just to bring you up to speed on this guy Herod, you might remember that he didn’t get along too well with the prophet who came before the Messiah -- John the Baptist. Herod actually had John murdered. And the reason for his imprisonment and subsequent murder was on account of the fact that the prophet dared to question the evil ruler’s divorce.
Now, imagine that you are one of the Pharisees, and you want to have Jesus killed. And he’s coming through town really close to where Herod lives. And there’s already a buzz about him coming, so Herod will probably be curious about what Jesus will do and say -- he’ll be sure to have his people around.
So what you come up with is this brilliant idea -- if John was murdered for condemning Herod’s divorce...then all we have to do is have Jesus make a similar statement and he’ll be trapped and then Herod will do the same thing to him.
So we read in Matthew 19:3 that the “Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?””
Now, there were two general factions of Pharisaical doctrine in play during the time of Christ… that is, there were two “schools” of traditional Jewish religion -- the Shammaic and the Hillelic schools. The Shammaic school taught that divorce was not permitted for any circumstance at all. But the Hillels taught that divorce was permitted for a host of reasons.
So the Pharisees were hoping that Jesus would deny the Hillelic view and affirm the Shammaic view. And in so doing, he would be writing his own death warrant.
But Jesus of course answers them with such wisdom and insight that no such thing happens. He says, beginning in verse 4: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Notice that Jesus doesn’t play the Shammaic or the Hillelic game. He doesn’t go to rabbinic authority -- he goes to Creation authority. He doesn’t go back a few decades. He goes back to the very beginning.
The Lord’s point is that God created mankind as male and female in order that marriage might occur. God didn’t create male mankind only. Nor did he create woman from the man and then walk away. No. He created two complementary and empirically distinct sexes in order that marriage might occur in the manner and for the function he prescribes -- one man and one woman joining together to become one new recognized family unit for the purpose of fulfilling the dominion mandate.
And then Jesus adds a citation of God’s definition of marriage from Genesis 2: “So they are no longer two but one flesh.”
A man and a woman who leave their former family units to become a new one are no longer to regard themselves as belonging to two separate families, but to rather regard themselves as belonging to one newly created unit. And then here’s the point about marriage having God’s divine protection: Jesus says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
This is his own divine exposition concerning the truth of God’s definition of marriage from Genesis 2:24. And in making this statement, Jesus is saying that God himself takes responsibility for human marriages. God joins them together.
But how can that be? Is there a heavenly joining together of souls that God does in tandem with earthy marriage? Does God somehow mystically work through the minister or the priest or the justice of the peace when a marriage occurs? Or perhaps does God join a man and a woman in that he providentially guides and directs towards their union? (This is likely part of it -- that God’s joining together of a man and woman is a description of his sovereign working.)
But I think it is still something else specifically that Jesus has in mind when he says that God joins together a couple in such a way so that no man can separate them. In creating the institution of marriage, God established the means by which one man and one woman would be joined together to form a new family… And it was created by him to be a fundamentally indissoluble union -- that no agency or natural party would have the authority to whimsically decide to revoke a marriage.
So it is in this way that God joins together a man and a woman -- in that his institution joins them together in a secure manner.
By creating an indissoluble institution, God has provided a way for male and female to be joined together for the good of fulfilling what humans were created to be and do -- to multiply and to have dominion over the earth.
Let me put it this way:
God created mankind such that it’s better to be complemented than to be alone and by yourself. (“it is not good that man should be alone”)
(Except, of course, what we refer to as the gift of singleness -- which is a wonderful thing that God grants to many people…)
But for those of us who do not have that gift from God, how do we become complemented / or, completed? How do we gain the benefit of a man or woman who will complete us in order that we might fulfill God’s purposes for us on the earth?
This kind of completion is provided in God’s creation of marriage. You can be joined to a spouse who will be a suitable complement for you when you rightly enter into God’s institution called marriage. So, by leaving mom and dad and by clinging to your spouse, you can be joined by God’s creation called marriage. In that sense he himself joins you with your spouse. And because he made marriage to be a permanent union, you are safely protected in it. Nothing can unjustly revoke it from you.
But, the Pharisees then ask a logical question at this point. Verse 7 -- “They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”
If no man should separate what God’s institution has joined together, then why is there provision for divorce?
And in their question the Pharisees also quote something that was said by Moses -- we see that they say, “Why then did Moses command…” And we can see that there is now a connection between what the Pharisees quote here and what Jesus quoted back in Matthew 5:31. In Matthew 5:31 we read that Jesus said, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.”
Jesus makes it anonymous. But the Pharisees say it was given by Moses. And then Jesus doesn’t correct them, so we have to assume that this statement was something that Moses taught. Moses provided an instruction for Israel that was apparently still well known in Jesus’ day -- and it was this: that if you were going to divorce your wife you were obligated to go about it the correct way -- by obtaining a certificate of divorce.
Neither Jesus nor Moses say that divorce itself is always OK; they rather just teach that you must protect the innocent party in the process. And so the Pharisees ask Jesus the right question following his affirmation of God’s definition of a permanent marriage from the beginning -- they ask why divorce came to be legal in the first place.
And Jesus answers them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”
What he’s saying is that God never had divorce in view when creating marriage. When he creates, he makes perfection. But because of the hardness of the hearts of sinful creatures, divorce became an inevitable reality that needed to be legislated. (As did the reality of property damage. And involuntary manslaughter. And leprosy.) When sin and the curse was introduced into what God created, a slew of new laws needed to be created out of the abundance of God’s mercy, in order that a decent human society could be formed.
But the problem is that sinful humanity took God’s concession for divorce (which was intended to help an innocent party), and they turned it into something it was never meant to be -- remember that the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for ANY cause?”
So in the same way that Jesus went back to the creation of the world to defend God’s view of marriage, he goes back to the creation of the law to defend God’s view of divorce. God’s view is this: Divorce itself is not a component to marriage as he created it. But because of sin, his mercy allowed divorce to happen in order to care for those who were innocent. And then because of what Jesus says in verse 9 (which is the same thing he said in Matthew 5:32), we understand that God has narrowly defined what a legitimate divorce actually is.
And in the same way that man cannot define marriage, man cannot define divorce. A man and a woman might think they have joined themselves together in marriage, but they have actually been joined by God’s created institution (if they have met all 3 criteria)... So also it is true that they might think that they have dissolved their marriage in a divorce, but in fact it is entirely possible that they have not.
And we know this to be the case because Jesus introduces the very strong possibility of the crime of adultery in the event of a divorce and a remarriage.
A person might then say:
“But the state says that I’m divorced!”
“I got a marriage license, now I have a divorce certificate.”
“Doesn’t God work through the government to facilitate marriage? Why is it not exactly the same for divorce?”
And the reason is because the state’s role in marriage is merely to provide a right recognition of a man and woman’s fitness for being bound in God’s institution of marriage. Government, therefore, is a steward of what God made, and it is to manage it rightly. Jesus just explicitly stated than no man can arbitrarily separate what God has joined together in his good institution. So if the state is going to issue a divorce, as it seems they have the ability to do in the correct situation, then they must do so according to proper grounds. And if a divorce is issued not according to the proper grounds, then the state has just given license to a future adulterer.
We must remember that since God created marriage, he sets the terms for its binding and its loosing. His creatures are to align themselves within his framework.
So what exactly are his terms for the dissolving of a marriage?
Or, put another way, what situations exist in which a marriage can be so dissolved in God’s view that another marriage can be rightly entered into? What are the cases in which one marriage can end and another one begin?
We know from precedent in the OT, and from Jesus’ own teaching in Matthew 22, and from Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 7, that the death of a spouse dissolves a marriage. There is no marriage in heaven, and we will not be married to our earthly spouses for eternity. When God takes us from earth, our marriage is dissolved. (That’s the easy one.)
What isn’t as easy for good people to agree on, is what (if any) are the other grounds for a marriage to be dissolved? Jesus seems to provide a case in which a divorce can rightly occur -- he says both in Matthew 19 and in Matthew 5, “except for sexual immorality.” (And we would need to work to define this according to what he meant.) And Paul also seems to provide another case in 1 Corinthians 7:15 when he indicates that the departure of an unbelieving spouse makes the Christian partner to be not bound.
I’m not going to get into the minutia of different views on these texts this morning (perhaps another time), but I do want to use what we observe in Scripture to make an important point:
If there are appropriate situations in which immorality or departure are grounds for an actual marriage dissolution in God’s estimation (just as the death of a spouse is dissolution in his estimation) then this is what we would have to conclude: That such circumstances violated the first critical component of a marriage (which I presented earlier as the need for correct attachments) -- and that because marital attachment has been so violated, the state can rightly issue a certificate of divorce.
Moses’ concession that Jesus refers to, and whatever it might be that warrants a legitimate divorce today -- such a provision has to do with a husband and/or a wife failing to cling to one another.
The rightful dissolution of a marriage happens when the state formally recognizes what has already happened under the hood: If a spouse clings to someone else. If a spouse utterly refuses to hold fast to their mate by desertion. If a spouse so devalues their mate that they resort to violence and harm. If such things occur then one of the main tenets of what marriage is has been shattered. In such kinds of circumstances, God’s definition of marriage would have been blatantly defied by one or both parties within it.
And if there is a rightful cause for a divorce that will not lead to an adulterous remarriage, then this would be it -- the willful and determined violation of holding fast to one’s spouse.
Notice what the disciples say next.
Matthew 19:10 -- “The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.””
I know myself. I can’t hold fast to my spouse.
That’s right. I can’t. Left to myself, I can’t.
But God is merciful and gracious. And your spouse forgives you as you forgive your spouse. And in a Christian marriage, you have abundant graces to help you succeed.
But in the end, there is no perfect situation where a man and a woman cling together perfectly. And this reality should quickly and frequently point our attention somewhere specific.
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church,because we are members of his body.“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
What I hope you see in that text is that the one-flesh-ness of a husband and wife is actually a mystery that is now revealed in Christ. What God intended marriage to be, even though it is now flawed from sin, is a beautiful picture of the only perfect marriage -- the union of Christ and his church.
Outside the Trinity, there is no closer kinship bond in the universe than Christ and his church. And there is no way that it could be possible for the church’s husband (Jesus Christ) to stop clinging to his bride. [And, theologically, the reverse is also true.]
Christ and his Church -- this is a union that can never and will never be broken.
So when your earthly marriage takes a bad turn, know that your union to Christ never will. He shed his perfect blood to bind us to him for all eternity.
A couple weeks ago on a Sunday evening we sang a great new hymn called “His Forever.” The first verse goes like this:
Jesus, friend of sinners
Loved me ’ere I knew Him
Drew me with His cords of love
Tightly bound me to Him
’Round my heart still closely twined
The ties that none can sever
For I am His and He is mine
Forever and forever